How The Media Can Stop Embarrassing Themselves At The Hands Of Police

As we enter a new journalistic era in which ubiquitous video allows us to check the assertions of authority figures against footage of the actual event in question, it's worth reconsidering some habits and conventions of traditional reporting that have led to public embarrassments in recent days and weeks.

We now know, for instance, thanks to cellphone footage, that the late South Carolina man Walter Scott was shot in the back while fleeing, not in the midst of a scuffle with an officer, as police had claimed. Before video of the killing was made public, the local media had little to go on other than the word of police, and the coverage as a result painted a picture that was wildly different than the one we'd all witness later.

Or take The Washington Post, which on Wednesday night ran with a big scoop: that an unnamed prisoner in the van with Freddie Gray told investigators Gray was "intentionally trying to injure himself." But the story quickly unraveled. First of all, Gray in the citizen video already appeared injured as police loaded him into the van. Second, Baltimore's police chief had previously said the other prisoner had described Gray as mostly calm on the ride. Third, Gray's injuries, medical experts said, could not have been self-inflicted, but instead were consistent with a high-speed crash. And the day after the story ran, the prisoner himself came forward to say on the record that Gray had only made a little noise. "They trying to make it seem like I told them that, I made it like Freddie Gray did that to himself. Why the fuck would he do that to himself?" Danta Allen told WJZ.

And on Friday, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, in filing charges against the officers involved, described Gray's death as a "homicide," not a bizarre suicide.

Critics of the Post have suggested the paper never should have run with the now-discredited story. But that's not entirely tenable, and indeed there is a way the Post could have avoided this embarrassment yet still gotten credit for scooping some news on the second prisoner -- and, in the process, reported what actually happened more accurately.

The problem comes down to a journalistic convention that reports news in the following format:


For example, the Post might write, "The sky is green, according to police sources."

In the headline, then, SOURCE is often dropped off in the pursuit of verbal efficiency, and the story could be titled simply: "Sky Green."

The Post disastrously headlined its own story: "Prisoner in van thought Gray was ‘trying to injure himself.’"

In this case, the thing that happened was the prisoner saying Gray was injuring himself, and the source was a police document. Documents tend to give journalists comfort, allowing us to say, if we get it wrong, that we may have been duped, but we aren't at fault. It's the Judy Miller defense.

In fact, that's just how the Post defended itself when asked by Politico's Dylan Byers how it got it so wrong. "We accurately quoted from that report, which was a search warrant affidavit written by a police investigator," Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said. "The story you sent makes clear '[the prisoner]'s angry about an internal police report.'"

The angry prisoner and the angry reading public, the Post is saying, should take it up with the police, not the Post. Don't shoot the messenger.

But the document was based on an interview with a prisoner who was in police custody, very much at their mercy. He had every reason to shade his story to benefit the police, and the police had every reason to shade their interpretation of his story to benefit themselves.

The job of reporters is to report what they know, and the problem with the Post story is that they didn't know that what the police claimed was true. They only knew the police were claiming it. The way out of the pickle for journalists, then, is simply to report what we know is happening.

In this case, we know for a fact that police are leaking information they claim exonerates themselves in the killing of Gray. Shaping the lede around this fact would have allowed the Post to report its news and also deliver it in a way that is unquestionably accurate, without needing to make any assumptions about motivation or honesty. It is also quite newsworthy that police decided, ahead of the release of the full investigation, to leak a small part of it that put them in the most favorable light.

A different lede could have gone something like this:

BALTIMORE -- A police source close to the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray provided The Washington Post with a document that claims a prisoner in the van told investigators Gray was "intentionally trying to injure himself."

The headline, then, could be something like: "Police Point Finger At Gray."

The key difference here is to make the THING HAPPENED be the police action of leaking the document, since that's what's most newsworthy and not at all in doubt, whereas the claim by the police -- about the claim by the prisoner -- is highly dubious, and has its news value undercut by the fact that it simply can't be true.

In other words, if the police say the sky is green, the news is not that the sky is green, according to the police. The news is that the police are apparently of the belief that the sky is green -- or at least that they want people to believe in this alternate reality for some reason. It is useful for the public to know if its officials believe the sky is green, or at least if they are pushing this narrative. It is therefore the duty of the press to report that officials made the assertion -- but it is not the duty of the press to report that the sky is green. Because -- spoiler alert -- it's not green, no matter what the police say or would have us believe somebody else said.

In its actual article, the Post put the document in context using the journalism go-to "not clear," which is often a reporter's way of expressing skepticism, but the nuance of which is largely lost on the reading public. "The document, written by a Baltimore police investigator, offers the first glimpse of what might have happened inside the van. It is not clear whether any additional evidence backs up the prisoner’s version, which is just one piece of a much larger probe," the Post wrote.

But instead of offering what's not clear, the story could have reported what is clear: That the new evidence is contradicted by almost everything we already know about what happened, and therefore it does not actually offer a "glimpse of what might have happened inside the van."

The story, then, could go on:

BALTIMORE -- A police source close to the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray provided The Washington Post with a document that claims a prisoner in the van told investigators Gray was "intentionally trying to injure himself." That version of events, however, is questioned by medical experts, who say Gray's injuries could not have been self-inflicted.

The document, however, sheds light on the strategy of police in handling the public fallout of Gray's death, as protests....

Or in South Carolina, the papers there could have said something along the lines of: "A police officer who shot and killed a man following a traffic stop is claiming he acted in self defense...."

It's not perfect, because as we now know, the officer was flat-out lying. But it is a fact that this is what police were claiming, and it's useful for the public to know what the cops say, even when they lie. The only other option is to not report anything the police say, and instead rely only on citizen-captured video. Which, in the end, might still be an improvement.